A growing number of human genetic polymorphisms in drug-metabolizing enzymes (DMEs) are being characterized. Some of these have been shown, quite convincingly, to be correlated with risk of toxicity or cancer, whereas others presently remain equivocal. There is good evidence that the correlation is stronger in populations exposed to a variety of environmental procarcinogens; perhaps 30% of DME substrates are able to be metabolically potentiated. Phase I DMEs, most of which represent cytochromes P450, metabolically activate procarcinogens to genotoxic electrophilic intermediates, and Phase II DMEs conjugate the intermediates to water-soluble derivatives, completing the detoxification cycle. It follows that genetic differences in the regulation, expression and activity of genes coding for Phase I and Phase II DMEs would be crucial factors in defining cancer susceptibility and the toxic or carcinogenic power of environmental chemicals. Not all Phase I and Phase II DMEs are implicated in detoxification; previous work from this and from other laboratories has identified candidate Phase I and Phase II genes in which certain alleles are more likely to be associated with cancer susceptibility. In some cases, the allelic frequencies vary dramatically between ethnic groups. In this review, our current knowledge about polymorphisms in the following genes are updated: the aromatic hydrocarbon receptor (AHR), the CYP1A1 structural gene (which encodes aryl hydrocarbon hydroxylase activity), the CYP1A2 structural gene (arylamine oxidations), the CYP2C19 gene (S-mephenytoin 4'-hydroxylase), the CYP2D6 gene (debrisoquine hydroxylase), the CYP2E1 gene (N,N-dimethylnitrosamine N-demethylase), the null mutant for the GSTM1 gene (glutathione transferase mu), and the NAT2 gene (arylamine N-acetyltransferase). If unequivocal biomarkers of genetic susceptibility to cancer and toxicity can be developed successfully, then identification of individuals at increased risk would be very helpful in the fields of public health and preventive medicine.